On January 4, 2016, I started a new, full-time job at Berea High School, my alma mater. It was really a dream job for me. Some teachers that taught me are still there and some of my former classmates are now teachers there. It was like going home again. I was hired as a full-time substitute, meaning I would go room to room as needed when someone was sick and the substitute job had not been filled.
On my first day, I was told that when nobody was out, or the substitute jobs had been filled, I would go to room 242 to be an aide. "You will assist Mrs Cloy with her students". Her class was full of freshman students who have learning challenges. It's a room I knew I would love.
Mrs Cloy was instantly welcoming. The students were a harder sell. They like routine, and a new person coming in mid-year would require some acclimation time. On my first day, I flopped into an empty desk next to a reddish blonde headed, lanky kid. He was wearing a Berea Baseball hoodie, big boots, and a big smile. It was a welcome sight amid the curious stares that covered the classroom. I guess that's the moment that Austin Stamey would claim his place in my heart as one of my favorites.
As time went on, the kids in 242 welcomed me as one of their own. The adopted my name, Ms. GiGi as opposed to Ms. McKelvey, a name that is dear to me and one I don't mind them calling me. A name my niece and nephew called me as babies. Mrs Cloy and I worked well together and I began forming bonds with each and every one of the kids. But, Austin was my first bond, and I never forgot that. It wasn't uncommon for him to lean over and tell me a joke or discuss the book, 'The Giver', we were reading everyday in class. He would often show me pictures of his beloved little sister, his mom, grandparents, or his slightly younger brother. His hand would shoot up every time Mrs. Cloy would ask a question or initiate discussion about the book the kids were so engrossed in. He wanted to learn. He took pride in his correct answers, and I took pride in his hard work. The last 10 minutes of class is free time, if they earned it. Austin often spent that chatting with me about random things and asking for a piece of gum he knew he would get. :)
Mrs. Cloy has a gift. She take kids with a wide array of challenges and needs, and finds a common ground for them to meet on. Nobody feels left behind or lost. Our class discussions are always lively and engrossing for the kids. She handles them with both love and discipline, something these kids need and crave. Not to mention the right amount of quirkiness, which the kids love. In return, they love her fiercely. She has taught me so much in our time together and has inspired me just as much as she inspires her students on a daily basis.
In April, I took over a class downstairs in a time of need, which took me away from 242 in the afternoons. Still, I was lucky enough to spend most morning with the freshman. Before that, my afternoons upstairs was with our juniors and seniors, with the amazing Mrs. Miller taking over the freshman. Mrs. Miller is another Berea gem. She loves those kids and they love her in return. She has been an amazing compass for what an aide should be. Mr Marlatt, a Navy veteran, and amazing inspiration with a kind heart, rounded out our little corner of the school. We are like a little family up there.
The bonus in me moving downstairs in the afternoons was that I gained my own room, which meant I could open my doors for, "B Lunch", the second half of lunch break, to students. They'd come in with their food. We listened to XM Radio and watched funny videos. Every day, Austin was in there. In fact, I wrote him a pass for every day of the week so he could be sure to make it once the main doors closed from the cafeteria to the academic area. I wanted my room to be a place where any student felt welcome to hang out. While I sometimes had 20 kids in there, Austin and I talked the whole time for the most part.
He lost his step-father suddenly a couple of years ago. We talked about his still weighing grief. We talked about his baby sister, his brother and mom, and we talked about random things. We talked about his dreams for his future. We talked about life. He would point out the girl he had a huge crush on. He would tell me all about ROTC, baseball, and proudly tell me of the climbing team he was a part of. I'll never forget the day he got to wear his fancy ROTC uniform to school for the first time. He felt so proud and looked so grown up compared to his sixteen years.
He would ask about my kids and my life each and every day. He was genuinely interested in my life away from school, and loved hearing of my travels and seeing the photos of the places I visit. He shared my photos on his Facebook page, telling me, " I want to go there one day". He talked of his faith and how that was a rock in his life. When the bell rang for 3rd block to begin, I always got a bear hug and a, "See you tomorrow, Ms. GiGi". On his last day of school, I got the same bear hug and him saying, "I am going to miss you this summer. I can't wait to see you next year". I still feel that hug. It's a memory I will cherish forever. He also left this sweet memory on my board. I normally don't take pics of notes students leave for me on my dry erase, but for some reason, I did, and I am so grateful.
At 5:31 A.M. on June 2nd, i was drying my hair. It was the last day of school for me. My iPhone notification went off. I looked to see an email from our amazing principal, Mr. Noel. The subject line was, "Student Death". My first thought was that our seniors has graduated the day before, and maybe something tragic had happened on the way to Senior Week at Myrtle Beach. As I opened the email, I saw, "Austin Stamey, asthma attack, cardiac arrest". I had to read the email three times for it to compute that it was actually Austin. My buddy. A numbness engulfed me that lasted until I walked into the school. When I first saw Mr Marlatt, the tears flowed. Our grief was palpable. Then, Mrs Cloy came in. Disbelief was setting back in. We had to break the news to Mrs. Miller, who had not read her email yet. We sat in Mrs. Cloy's room silent for a while, then the tears came.
His sweatshirt, which he wore every day, had been left in her class on his last day of school. He had said, "I will get it next year". I delivered it to his mom that same day. Even more amazing was what he had also left behind. Something the kids worked on, "Thank You", notes. He chose his mom. He forgot to take his home. And Mrs Cloy found it the day after he died.
As I walked up to Austin's house that day, I didn't know what to say. His mom had planned to come to the school to get his hoodie, unaware of the note from her son that she would receive. I offered to go get the items and she accepted. Her swollen eyes and look of shock made me insist. It's amazing how a piece of clothing, something she saw and washed every day, becomes a source of comfort to her. Then, the letter came. Austin's mom became overwhelmed with emotion. A letter from her son, at a time she needed it most. How that happened, I could never explain. But that letter was mean to be late to her. Her son, speaking in death, about how she had been his rock. He inadvertently left her a gift of comfort. A gift of love.
We had a candlelight vigil for Austin on the baseball field, a place he loved. A lot of young people showed up in spite of it being the first week of summer break. Their faces told their grief and loss. The funeral was the most emotional I have ever attended, yet such a testament to Austin and his loving heart, and his goofy side. He never met a stranger. I didn't feel like one on my first day in 242 because of him.
I think of him every day. I know I will miss him more as his seat will be empty on the first day of school. I know Mrs Cloy, Mrs. Miller, and Mr. Marlatt will feel the same void. We will have to talk to our kids about a sad reality that won't set in for them until the first day of school. Our kids are like family. They fight like siblings, but will protect each other fiercely. Austin's absence will forever change the dynamics of our corner of the school.
What do we learn from this? Maybe, that life is precious. We aren't invincible. We are blessed every day, even when time seem tough. Austin was a good young man. A gentleman.
I never want to go through losing a student again. You really do feel you have gained 20 children when you join a classroom. We spend more time with them we do our own kids. We know their strength and weaknesses, their fears, their past. As a mother, I want to nurture all of them. Because of that, his death hurts more. But, I gladly take that. Fly high, Austin. You will never be forgotten.